The Power of Innovation

by Russ Roberts on January 30, 2007

in Technology

Harold Evans, author of They Made America (a wonderful book), reacts in a letter to the editor ($) to the Atlantic Monthly’s list of the 100 most influential Americans. After talking about some of the pluses and minuses of the list, he continues:

But the most fundamental point your panel missed
is how much innovators have enabled America’s dedication to democracy
and equal rights. A. P. Giannini opened banking to the common man.
Madam C. J. Walker, the orphan daughter of slaves, built the largest
black business of its day, liberating millions of African American
women through the iconic status she achieved. Gary Kildall and Ken
Olson expanded access to the computer beyond a select priesthood. The
panel did mention Henry Ford, but failed to stress his singular
achievement: giving practical reality to the rhetoric of democracy by
fighting for the people’s car. Similarly, Cyrus McCormick’s truly
original contribution—as important as his reaper—was his invention of
easy credit for the masses of ordinary farmers who otherwise could not
have afforded his machine.

Beyond this, it was amazing to see no mention
of the new nation’s first notable innovator, Oliver Evans (the
high-pressure steam engine), or Charles Goodyear (vulcanized rubber),
Philo T. Farnsworth (television), Herbert Boyer (the father of
biotechnology), Theodore Judah (the architect of the transcontinental
railroad) … I could go on!

Rather than depreciating the achievements of
our innovators in business and technology, historians should
acknowledge how much we need them for making a better
America—independent of foreign fossil fuel, ready to cope with the
effects of global warming and with competition from low-cost economies.
Just as they made yesterday’s America, the innovators are crucial to
making tomorrow’s.

What an insightful breath of optimism.


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python January 31, 2007 at 12:38 am

Our innovation is proof that the American system works. From the early 1800s to yesterday, Americans invent FAR more things per capita than any country in the history of mankind. Anyone who admits this however would be giving tacit approval to free market ideals.

Innovation can flourish when people:
A) will benefit from their own innovation;
B) have the liberty to pursue their ideas;
C) can gather capital to do their work

But that is just capitalist propaganda. Look at all the wonderful things that the Communist Bloc and Muslim countries have invented in the past 50 years. Let's see, Sputnik, and um… did I mention Sputnik? BTW, the 50th anniversary of Sputnik is coming this year.

isaac Crawford January 31, 2007 at 7:20 am

God bless Lee DeForest… Speaking of which, the soviets did come up with some nifty vacuum tubes, the 6c33cb in particular. Vacuum tubes are still being used en-mass for audio applications. There's a store right there in McLean (DeJa VU audio) that sells mostly hollow state technology amplifiers. Bell labs gets all the accolades for inventing the transistor, which granted, has had some impact:-) but the original innovators of electronics are very often relegated to the trivia heap…


Randy January 31, 2007 at 3:45 pm


I think that many entirely miss the connection between innovation and free markets. They think of innovation as some strange guy in a garage inventing stuff, or a government project to make something in the interests of humanity. Therefore they think that improving innovation is a matter of increasing interest in science, better schools, or more government grants. The truth is that most innovation is done by the entrepreneur looking for some small advantage. The little things that add up.

True_Liberal January 31, 2007 at 8:56 pm

IC says: "…sells mostly hollow state technology amplifiers"

ROFL!!! (and this from an IC guy…)

jpm January 31, 2007 at 10:01 pm

Wait a minute! Didn't these inovations all cost many hard working American their jobs?!!!

isaac Crawford February 1, 2007 at 6:35 am

LOL, I hadn't thought of that… I do use sand state devices in my amps, but just for regulators and current sinks and the like, so maybe I am living up to my initials:-)


Lafayette February 4, 2007 at 11:51 am

"The implication here would be that … women could get together and pay drivers to drive less."

This is drivel of the purest sort. Pollution is not an academic issue and should not be treated in such a cavalier fashion.

America's air is polluted because the regulations regarding pollutants have been inadequate since inception and have had no or little affect on such effluents.

Besides, America is heavily dependent upon carbon-based fuels for both electricity and automobiles. (France generates more than 80% of its electricity from nuclear plants.)

The lead-head in the White House refused to sign the Kyoto accord, so America has refused to institute a "cap and trade" system that limits effluent levels and makes polluters pay whilst creating value for non-polluters (who sell their credits to polluters).

It is not the most efficient pollution-reduction system in the world, but clearly better than doing nothing, for which lead-head has become famous. If he decided to dismiss Kyoto (as "badly flawed", I recall) then it was a purely partisan decision that favored some industry lobby, likely Big Oil. (Two more years … heaven help us.)

Lafayette February 4, 2007 at 12:27 pm

Randy: "The truth is that most innovation is done by the entrepreneur looking for some small advantage. "

Were it only so simple. What you relate is American folklore … innovation coming out a garage, a couple of guys fooling around, etc., etc., etc.

Innovation is the last step in a long, long road that begins with research, moves on to development and finally to product innovation. Yes, it requires brilliance on the part of a dedicated few to accomplish.

But, innovation is the fruit of a great many people further up the line that will not make a cent of profit from their work that, finally, made an historic innovation possible.

Gary February 4, 2007 at 10:59 pm

Hmmm? Free market and innovation: Nikola Tesla anyone?

Kent Gatewood February 8, 2007 at 5:35 pm

Didn't Pres Clinton sign Kyoto? Ratification is up to the Senate.

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